Monday, January 14, 2008
Airport security a 'con game'
Passengers undergo stringent measures at airports but experts report `gaping security holes' behind the scenes
Some of the 600,000 prohibited items seized each week from passengers at Pearson
airport range from aerosols and liquids to knives and toy guns.
Restricted areas at Pearson International Airport, where thousands of employees work and load scores of planes daily, are less secure than those used by passengers, says Peel police Supt. Ed Toye, the airport's top cop.
"It's not as shut down and secure as the public side," Toye said, referring to what security analysts say is the most vulnerable area of any airport.
While security in Pearson's restricted areas has greatly improved over the past five years, Toye said in an interview, it lags behind the tight controls on passengers because Transport Canada fixed the "front end" of the operation before focusing on what goes on behind the scenes. "You got to start at the front end of the boat, but the back end is still leaking."
"But," he added, "it's not like the leak has gone unnoticed – they're monitoring it and they're fixing it," he said, referring to Transport Canada.
Transport Canada, which acknowledges an "air cargo security gap" at Pearson, has a $26 million budget to design and test a cargo security program for the airport, but it will take years before it's up and working, the agency's director of air cargo security said.
Stephen Conrad said the security procedures being developed will focus on installing screening equipment that can handle cargo and enhancing the "chain of custody" from shipper to airport. "We do actually want to have the same level of security" for cargo as for checked luggage, he said in an interview.
Meanwhile, said Senator Colin Kenny, chair of the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence, the "gaping security holes" at Pearson and other airports denounced by the committee in its report last year remain wide open and an inviting target.
Kenny, who notes the federal government has taken little action since his committee's report on security at Canada's 89 main airports – which handled almost 94 million passengers in 2005 – described the gap between passenger and non-passenger security as "a psychological con game.
"I find it ironic that passengers are still undoing their belt buckles or having their shoes taken off and being hassled to no end when they're getting on a flight and nobody seems to be caring at all about the people who are working around the plane on a day-to-day basis," Kenny said in a recent interview.
Kenny cites four primary security concerns: Inadequate checks of airport employees; unscreened airmail and general cargo; unscreened baggage on chartered planes, including executive jets; and inadequate checks on caterers and trucks bringing food to the airport.
"Pearson is perhaps the most defiant," Kenny noted. "They seem almost to be proud of the lack of security they have there and their attitude is pretty arrogant," he charges.
Scott Armstrong, spokesperson for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, which runs Canada's busiest airport, describes Kenny's report as "meant to raise the hairs on the back of your neck."
Especially telling, Armstrong says, is Pearson's security record. The existing security measures are "reasonable," he said, citing the 31 million passengers who used Pearson last year without incident.
But security at Pearson came under scrutiny again last week when a 20-year-old man ran past a checkpoint at Terminal 1 and boarded an Air Canada plane. The unarmed man was eventually arrested.
While that incident renewed the focus on passenger screening, security analysts and police say the real security gap at Pearson and most airports worldwide is behind the scenes. Since the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., governments have instead stressed tougher screening of passengers to create a public perception of security, analysts argue.
"It's a smoke and mirrors trick," says Alicia Wanless, executive director of Toronto's International Perspectives security think-tank.
But Armstrong, Pearson's spokesperson, insists Pearson is safe.
"The senate committee raises very valid, very interesting points," he said. "However, you have to have systems in place that balance the fact that we still have an operation to run and the fact that that operation has to be safe and secure."
Armstrong said security was significantly beefed up last year with the introduction of biometric identity passes for employees at 29 Canadian airports. Staff entering restricted areas must now undergo iris and fingerprint scans.
The high-tech passes, Toye says, have transformed restricted areas into "gated communities" – if a theft occurs, police can immediately track who was in the area.
"I don't know of any other country in the world that has it," Toye says. "Even the Israelis have come over and said they're really envious of that biometric card. To me that's high praise."
But Wanless says biometrics is wrongly seen as a security panacea, particularly since it doesn't guard against people with fake identities getting the passes in the first place.
Kenny wants biometric passes that do more, such as signalling a breach in security if employees enter a restricted area outside their work hours.
Still, the biometric passes are expected to make the work of criminals at Pearson more difficult. A year ago, seven baggage handlers were arrested in connection with the theft of thousands of dollars of electronic goods from luggage.
There's more agreement on the fact employees are searched or manually screened, but randomly – Kenny says an average of once every 50 times they show up for work.
Checks of mail and cargo that end up on passenger planes is even more sporadic, Kenny says. Canada Post sends 1.9 million pieces of mail every day by air, mostly on passenger planes. Airlines also move about 660,000 tonnes of cargo. Yet little of it is checked for explosives, he charges. All passengers' checked luggage, on the other hand, is scanned with X-ray machines.
And, Transport Canada's Conrad notes, air carriers are responsible for ensuring cargo conforms to a "layered" security approach, from verifying proper documentation to searching merchandise, if necessary.
At the moment, Toye says, bomb-sniffing dogs are used to check the "bulk" of airline cargo at Pearson, but not all containers are sniffed.
And Armstrong concedes there's "room for improvement."
Increased security is also being considered at other Pearson facilities, such as the Derry Rd. site where private and executive jets take off and land, says Jean Barrette, Transport Canada's director of security operations.
Kenny says there are few security requirements at such facilities, where bags and passengers are not screened before boarding. On the food front, Pearson officials dismiss claims that delivery trucks aren't searched. Toye says even police have to open the trunks of their cars when entering a restricted area.
Food crates are brought to a central warehouse and inspected for explosives before being delivered to airport shops or planes, Toye says.
What's clear is that despite safety concerns at Pearson and other airports, American security analysts say Canada has done a better job improving security in restricted areas than the U.S. "We still have great gaping holes that can lead to a major attack against that system," says Andrew Thomas, an Ohio business professor who has written three books on airport security.
The main concerns
•Inadequate checks of airport employees
•Unscreened airmail and general cargo
•Unscreened baggage on chartered planes, including executive jets
•Inadequate checks on caterers, trucks bringing food to the airport
By the numbers
Passengers used Pearson in 2006. In 2003, it was 24.7 million.
Passengers a day use the airport. This year's one millionth passenger is expected to enter the airport on Monday.
Fights take off and land at Pearson each day. It services 77 commercial airlines and 60 cargo airlines.
Peel police officers are assigned to Pearson, including a tactical team on 24-hour call.
Employees work at Pearson.
Tonnes of cargo were moved at Pearson in 2006.